The Source Code of Grit

A couple weeks ago I was out doing my favorite thing – riding a bicycle on the local roads I know so well. It was a gorgeous afternoon. Blue skies, light air, 80 degrees. Descending a hill at about 30mph, I heard a loud crack on my right and looked up to see a 20 foot dead tree falling directly in my path. With no time to touch the brakes, and barely time to acknowledge what was happening I crashed into the tree less than a second later, before it even came to rest in the road. I vaulted over the bars, and catapulted, spinning majestically through space, to land on my back in the middle of the road.

Cars stopped in both directions blocked by the tree, and I lay in the middle of the lane, staring up at the sky, taking inventory. I was gently touching my collarbone and thinking, “It feels a little funny, but I’m sure it’s fine,” when I heard footsteps running toward me. A woman appeared above me, blocking the sun, looked down and said, “I’m Jill! We’re visiting from Florida! That was incredible! Are you OK?”

Oddly enough, in that moment all I could think about was that I was going to be late to pick up our daughter. She was having a play date with a friend. I needed to get home and go pick her up. I asked if I could call my daughter. Jill paused and said, “How about we call 911 instead.”

The next few hours involved EMTs, an ambulance, the Sheriff, a fire truck, hospital technicians and doctors to finally arrive at the conclusion that I had a nasty collarbone fracture. Have a look.

Of course the following days were painful and frustrating. Every physical movement alarmed my shoulder, every gesture was measured. It took hours to find the nerve to take a shower. Sleeping was horrid. But all I needed to do was be a little grittier, a little tougher, right? And then I could push through the obstacles, push through the frustration, be a better patient. C’mon suck it up. Just choose a better attitude, right?

Here’s the point I’m getting to. A lot of the contemporary literature in popular psychology has co-opted this notion of grit to apply to everything from parenting to coaching to managing. If only our students could be grittier, our players tougher, our employees more determined – everything turns out better. Here’s another article about all the magic that comes with grit.

The more you examine this idea, the more it seems like a gross simplification. Even Angela Duckworth, who popularized the notion of grit, has reservations that the idea has been over-applied and misunderstood.

When I reflect on my bike accident, and think about how to persevere through my own setback, I find the work of David DeSteno much more relevant and applicable. His basic argument is that grit is difficult to summon, and even harder to maintain on its own. Grit alone, demands self-reliance and willpower, which is lonely and difficult. Willpower wanes over time, and when it does we are more likely to succumb to self-disappointment and frustration.

Instead think about the origins of grit. DeSteno’s research demonstrates that you can set the conditions to become grittier, but those conditions are more social in nature. Compassion, Gratitude, and Pride of a job well done, are the engine of that grit we’re all striving for. The operating system of that flinty stick-to-itiveness is social reliance, not self-reliance.

In a series of experiments, researchers demonstrated that self compassion – not self-esteem or even happiness – was a stronger influence for high work performance, ethical choices, and overcoming personal weakness. The root of performance, morality and personal mastery starts with compassion.

And think about gratitude for a moment. Gratitude for what someone did for you encourages us to think about what we will do in the future, to aspire to a better version of ourselves, to imagine ourselves delivering a meal for someone in need.

On the deepest, unconscious level, gratitude is really about being grateful for the actions that are yet to come.
– David DeSteno

Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.